A Roman historian gets dirty, three years and counting: Dr. Michael Ng on his time at Halmyris

Me, myself, and Halmyris…

As a child growing up in Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho I enjoyed watching Indiana Jones and thought I’d end up as an archaeologist.  Well, life takes funny turns and I became an Imperial Roman military historian instead but I never forgot my love of excavations (or, at least, the idea).  I specialised as a Latin epigrapher working on military inscriptions.  Perhaps it was that love of adventure and desire to see the world which led to my life in England as an MA student at King’s College London and my PhD candidacy at Royal Holloway, University of London.

My doctoral work was on the Urban cohorts, a Roman military unit which was part of the Imperial Rome garrison and a sister unit to the famous/infamous Praetorian Guard.  Perhaps, not to be too introspective, a life spent on the American frontier (in many ways) sent me to the buzzing and multi-cultural heart of the former British Empire, with Britain herself a former Roman frontier province, to study the garrison units who were at the heart of the Roman Empire.  Yet I now spend my time away from my classroom not in the Eternal City but, rather, on the frontiers at a Romano-Byzantine fort on the Danube.

What brought me to the edge of my beloved Roman world?  I was interested in how the Rome garrison engaged with citizens and non-citizens at Rome, the capital of a multi-continent empire, and how they involved themselves in politics (perhaps putting their own former Urban prefect, the emperor Pertinax, on the throne).  My view of Rome was always as a denizen, in many ways, of the capital and studying the elites of the Roman army like the urbaniciani and the praetoriani gave me this different sense of how the heart of the Empire might view the periphery.  That the privileged lives of the army’s elites were only made possible by the work of those soldiers and sailors who did their best to keep threats outside Roman borders.

I first heard of Halmyris when a former student told me of the great time he had at the site and of a fort that represented so many conundra.  I was reminded of my childhood dreams of digging and exploration and thought that I should apply.  I found myself in Romania, in July 2014, as a stranger in a strange land meeting my colleagues and fellow dig volunteers at this charming restaurant in Bucharest, Caru’ Cu Bere.  The food was delicious, the entertainment splendid, and the company more than convivial.  I had a good feeling about the next four weeks on my first dig.

The next day we had our bus journey out to the village of Murighiol, our base of operations, and whilst it was new there was also something hauntingly familiar about the hot and dry Romanian countryside.  It reminded me, in many ways, of the Palouse where I grew up and I felt this sense of power and of history.  Of Romans and non-Romans mingling on a frontier at one of the furthest edges of the northern limits of Roman territory and of the vital nature of this frontier to imperial defence.  I thought of Dacians, Greeks, Huns, and the ebb and flow of empire.  A point which I was reminded of with talks given by my colleagues, Prof. Mihail Zahariade, the Romanian archaeologist who has been at the site since the very beginning, and Prof. John Karavas.

I was reminded of this history again when John talked about the frontiers and deployment of auxiliaries and legionary forces.  I recalled, vividly as John spoke to an audience of volunteers, that what was perhaps abstract from the point of view of the Rome garrison was much more gritty on the spot.  Perhaps that was why Dio commented on the laughable way in which the Praetorians, long unused to campaigning during the reign of Commodus, were unable to build serious defences as Septimius Severus’ army approached Rome from the provinces to confront poor Didius Julianus (Dio 74.16).

Rather than retell stories of the great finds we had (the buildings, the individual artefacts, etc…) perhaps what stood out to me most was my experience standing near Tower 2 each year and gazing out at where the harbour used to be.  Much of what we have looked at is the Justinianic layer in my three years at the site, the more I wanted to know about things we might not be able to answer directly.  What was it like to be that last garrison commander with a small pool of manpower holding on to this lonely outpost on the Danube?  What was it like in the early days of the garrison at the height of Roman power as perhaps we arrogantly stared down incoming merchants and visitors to our world?  Or did he, and forgive this simple country boy from Idaho and his indulgence in a flight of fancy here, indulge in the Roman equivalent of a gin and tonic and ponder his next career destination as a steward of Roman imperial greatness?  Melodramatic?  Yes, most certainly, but that did not stop me from wondering about such things on the final day of each dig season as I said farewell to the site each year, to my excellent colleagues, and, dare I say it, to people who had become dear friends.